Week 25 in the year of our Lord 2022

In which we interact with a significant review of our book

15 minutes to read

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On The Gospel Coalition, Alastair Roberts reviews our book, alongside The Men We Need by Brant Hansen. Yes, we finally made it to the big time—the royal hall of Big Eva itself. And not just the big time, but the big guns. Roberts is a thinker we both respect highly. His understanding of the patterns of Scripture is vast, and we have both benefited from his work, both on biblical theology in general, and on masculinity more specifically.

Here’s his piece:

Review: ‘The Men We Need’ and ‘It’s Good to Be a Man’ on The Gospel Coalition

While we appreciate Alastair’s critique, it is off, for several reasons. The first, we must own—we are inexperienced at writing books like this. Some of the fumbles he mentions are really just points we didn’t think to finesse as well as we could have.

But another major reason is that he lets his subjective “feel” of the book interpret our possible intentions. For instance:

Here’s a side-by-side with what we actually write about toxic femininity on page 75 (his first citation):

Moreover, we spend the first part of this chapter talking about toxic masculinity—only turning to toxic femininity after setting the general stage.

If we seem “animated” in these pages, it is because we have both witnessed first-hand the pain and destruction of toxic femininity. We wish to convey some sense of this to the reader. It is not a topic that should be treated in serene academic tones disconnected from the pain of sin in the real world. We wonder if Roberts would highlight the equal animation of those who write about abuse perpetrated by men? If not, why not?

Yes, the fifth commandment does say this. And so do we. Side by side again:

We don’t intend to fisk the entire review, but here is another odd example where it is almost if Roberts is paraphrasing what we ourselves have written, yet as a critique that we didn’t write it:

Side by side:

Does Alastair think that the female personification of wisdom in Proverbs has implications for women themselves being innately wiser than men? If not, why bring it up? He must know that the purpose of this personification, aside from simple linguistics (wisdom in Hebrew is a feminine noun), is to emphasize the value of a wise wife. Does he disagree with the scriptures we cite in the quote he is concerned about, that wives are to seek wisdom from their husbands? Here is what we say:

Though both men and women ought to seek wisdom, women are instructed to seek it from men: from their husbands (1 Cor. 14:35; cf. Eph. 5:26) and from their pastors—who are in turn selected out of the men in the Church for their special skill at their husbandly duties (1 Tim. 3:1–7). This makes being wise an especially masculine obligation. A man is required by God to wisely order his world, including those over whom he is the head. How can a man teach his wife and children if he does not first have wisdom himself? Even the analogy of head and body has wisdom bound up in it; the man is, put crudely, the brains of the operation. A husband who lacks wisdom, therefore, is failing in his duties as a man. Fortunately, he can in turn ask God, who gives wisdom generously and without reproach to all who come to him in faith (Jas. 1:5–8). (pp. 145–146)

These kinds of critiques seem clearly driven by something other than the actual things we say in the book.

Now, here is a comment we can sympathize with a bit more:

We stand by the content of the paragraph that this quote is taken from. However, it is one of most clumsily written paragraphs in the book, and Michael has dealt appropriately with the party responsible. He won’t make that mistake again. Describing usefulness as uniquely masculine is not the best way to phrase it; but in fairness to us, Roberts does not go on to explain to his readers, as we do, that what we mean here is that usefulness is “integral to masculinity in a way that it is not to femininity” (p. 147).

The point is really very simple: men are uniquely judged on their practical usefulness, in a way that women aren’t. As Red Green quipped:

Roberts goes on to rehearse the now-standard criticism that we didn’t articulate a more full-orbed doctrine of femininity, in our book exclusively devoted to articulating a basic doctrine of masculinity:

We’re glad that Roberts makes these acknowledgments. We appreciated him distinguishing us from the some of the other voices writing on this topic that we ourselves would want to be distinguished from—and have indeed criticized. However, we’d say very simply that our vision of women is underdeveloped in the book…because it wasn’t a book about women.

This critique is so bizarrely consistent among our more critical reviewers that we feel compelled to call attention to it. The chief objection that many critics have (not Roberts—but he still expresses it as a concern), is that we did not write It’s Good To Be A Woman instead.

However, we do not wish to be overly negative. There were parts of the review where Roberts clearly shows that he really is engaging with our book rather than just criticizing it. We are very grateful for this. For instance, we haven’t read Hansen, but Roberts is definitely tracking with our intended primary audience:

This is a good paragraph. Similarly, we see here that he is far from being a dishonest hack (which, frankly, is what we expect from TGC)—so credit where it is due:

We also especially appreciated this extended section:

Both of the accounts of masculinity seek grounding in the fundamental scriptural vision of Genesis 1–3. Hansen’s orienting reference is Genesis 2:15, where the Lord placed the man in the garden to serve and to guard it. Foster and Tennant have a firmer grasp of the broader picture of Genesis 1–3. For instance, they recognize that the man’s commission precedes the creation of the woman and so cannot be narrowly ordered toward or around her. The man is not created for the woman, as Hansen’s approach might imply, but the woman is, as the apostle Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 11:9, created for the man. Indeed, there are times when, as the appointed guardian, the man might need to guard the divinely established order against women and other parties who are threatening it from within the garden.

Further, while the man has an initial task in the garden, he’s created for the task of subduing the wider world. Hansen’s neglect of this fact likely colors his vision of fatherly duty: when men are narrowly characterized as protectors, their responsibility to lead their children out into effective agency within the world can easily be underplayed.

When we consider the man’s commission to master the untamed world, the immense significance of male strength, collaboration, and brotherhood also becomes apparent. True masculinity must be forged in large measure in such contexts where women are largely absent. Even though it’s important to observe the honor, kindness, and concern with which Jesus treated women, we shouldn’t forget that his was chiefly an outward-oriented mission to perform his Father’s business, accompanied by a band of brothers who left their families behind to follow him. Like many such predominantly male missions, even while being for the benefit of men and women alike, its performance is such that the manner of men and women’s participation within it often sharply differs, the different strengths and vocational foci of the two sexes being accentuated. If you don’t begin with the biblical story on its own terms, such facts can easily be obscured, especially when our concern is narrowly to demonstrate that Jesus valued and affirmed women (which he clearly did). We may only notice what we’re looking for.

Unfortunately, Roberts’ balance slips again later. Overall, we would say that he is generally quite unbalanced. For instance, goes on to say:

This is just wrong, and ironically a highly partial representation of what we actually say. Again, here’s a side-by-side:

And there are worse gaffs than this; Roberts sadly caves sometimes to the TGC social justice narrative expectations:

No, it hasn’t. It would only take a short cross-examination over the phone for Roberts to greatly temper this statement. “So often?” C’mon now. Similarly:

What this reveals is how the mindset of a reviewer colors his critique. Note that Roberts does not say that we do encourage lording it over—because we don’t. So he says “in great danger of encouraging.” Same thing for masculinizing society to the point of denigrating and marginalizing women. We never suggest that. So he says, “could be seen as…”


Because these are the issues that loom large in his mind. But we can tell you from observation on the ground—as opposed from the ivory tower—that these just aren’t the dangers of our time. The opposite is true. Why is Roberts seeming to want to carry water, or at least give headspace to, the very ideologies that are tearing down our society? Why can he not affirm patriarchy without needing to hedge like this about the possible problems that might occur for someone reading our book?

Pretty much anything can be taken the wrong way by someone. So is he critiquing our book—or is he critiquing how some anti-biblical hyper-patriarchalists could abuse our book?

Ironically, and with all due respect to Roberts, he seems to be incapable of balance on points like this precisely because he is so concerned about being more balanced than other people. He makes this telling remark:

We think the foil of “not being balanced like I am” looms large in Alastair’s consciousness. It explains his strange oversights, and the forced push for a “third way” narrative. It explains comments like this, which read like another obvious meta-narrative rather than a real critique of our book:

We don’t see every side clearly. What an ability that must be!

Roberts has been writing on masculinity since before we have. Where is his book to give us a cleanly-balanced, impartial theology of manhood? Throw your hat in the ring brother. This is hard—let’s see how it’s done!

Finally, here’s his conclusion, which struck as as extremely unfair, given its insinuations in the teeth of our emphases in chapters 1 and 8–10:

There are few truths more important for a healthy understanding of masculinity than knowing we’re not our own masters—our masculinity must be controlled by and subjected to Christ’s rule. Indeed, the humbling of masculinity is a theme running throughout Scripture. The sign of circumcision is a powerful physical manifestation of this: self-assertive manhood must be “pruned” if it is to bear covenant meaning. The true honor of rule only really belongs to those who have the meek heart of a servant. Ultimately, while this service must be expressed in large measure in loving concern for women, the weak, and the vulnerable, it is rendered to the Lord and greatly exceeds the task of protection alone.

Manliness is good, as is God’s intention that men lead in the human task of dominion, and these truths need to be defended in our day. Nevertheless, this goodness will only truly be experienced where men are subject to Christ’s dominion. Outside of such submission, manliness can become a great focal point of the sinful flesh, and it has driven some of humanity’s greatest expressions of evil. Those who are good at being “manly” are often bad men.

This unjustly minimizes how clearly and strongly we talk about the differences between good and evil patriarchy, and the necessity of good patriarchy to fight against the evil, without using the weapons of evil. We explicitly and repeatedly ground biblical patriarchy in correctly imaging and representing the rulership of our heavenly father. We outright say that a man who cannot submit himself to God is not a man who can ever be a true patriarch. We repeatedly emphasize the necessity of a man to rule himself well before he can rule others. Yet Roberts acts like none of this central content exists.

He essentially paraphrases a bunch of points we make, as a critique of our book—as if he were correcting us instead of agreeing with us!

Still, while aspects of his review are annoying, we still both think Roberts is a fantastic and helpful thinker. This final phrase, however, is revealing:

“The proliferating partial accounts of our day.” We await Roberts’ full account. Until then, lesser men like us will do what we can.

P.S. Bnonn’s wife would like to thank Alastair for consistently remembering that her husband co-authored the book. Many reviews never mention Bnonn’s name at all. We add this not because it bothers Bnonn, but for the sake of his wife, and because it is such a very natural and completely organic segue into…

Q&A on remembering names #

A reader asks:

I’ve noticed over the past couple years that many of my friends tell anyone new that they meet that they are “bad with names, so sorry if I don’t remember yours.” I used to say this same thing, but stopped when I realized that I needed to intentionally remember names and that I was being rude and lazy by not remembering. When people say this phrase or something like it, it feels like a cope to me. Do you think this is accurate? Is it a habit of not remembering that men need to break, or are some people just made differently that this is more difficult?

It’s mostly a cope.

If you really are in a situation where you’re constantly having to remember new names, then just set expectations up front: “It’ll take me a few times before I get your name down.”

But in general, if you actually care enough to make an effort, it’s not that hard to get good at remembering names.

And if you do forget, just own it quickly and ask them again. Then make sure you pay attention that time.

It really does come down to training yourself to pay attention. When you pay attention to things, you remember them better.

Sometimes repetition is required. So, make a habit of repeating the name to yourself for the first few minutes, or whenever you think of it.

This is almost certainly a problem that is largely caused by the generally poor “mental hygiene” that most people suffer with today. Social media apps have trained us to fragment our attention over dozens of meaningless and ephemeral items that we know we don’t need to remember. We have allowed ourselves to be trained to habitually disperse our attention, dissipating it into noise instead of learning to focus it on one thing that matters.

Quite likely, people who struggle to remember names need to cut out some other bad habits that are upstream from that, like constantly being beholden to push notifications, OCD page refreshing/scrolling, and habitual “multi-tasking.”

Underpromise and overdeliver

Know your limits, and guard them. Promising to be stronger than you are, won’t give you any extra strength, and will only make you look good until you fail.

That said, pair this hack with last week’s: be a rational risk-taker.

New content this week: #

Notable: #

Talk again next week,

Bnonn & Michael

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